The influential magazine Consumer Reports said Thursday that an article about unsafe infant car seats in its Feb. 2007 issue may have been based on faulty data. The magazine withdrew the article and said it would conduct the tests again.
The move is a major embarrassment for the magazine, which prides itself on rigorous independent testing of consumer products.
The article bore the headline "What if this Were Your Child?" Above the headline were photos of an infant seat getting torn apart in a test car crash.
The magazine said it had tested the seats by putting them through a side-impact crash at a speed of 38 miles per hour, and that only two of 12 performed well. Two others did so badly that the magazine called on the government to recall them.
But this week — after the magazine was printed — Consumer Reports learned there may have been a major error in the data. Specifically, the force of the crash in the test was much higher than the magazine first believed. That would explain why the seats were so badly damaged.
"Once we heard that the tests were conducted at a level higher than 38 mph, we immediately wanted to conduct new tests to look at all aspects of the article, conduct an internal review and, most importantly, communicate fully and openly to consumers with safety information," Ken Weine, a spokesman for the magazine, said.
The tests were performed by an outside lab, according to Weine, unlike most of the tests conducted by the magazine. Not all the lab's findings have been called into question.
There's no evidence of any errors in the data for front-impact crashes. Still, the magazine said it would review all of the data anyway.
Consumer Reports decided to retract the article after meeting with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Nicole Nason, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said Thursday that the magazine was right to retract the piece. She noted that 100 anxious parents had contacted her agency on the night the report was released.
"I was troubled by the report because it frightened parents, and it could have discouraged them from using car seats," Nason said. "And we know that car seats are the best defense for a child in a crash."
Nason's agency is responsible for testing infant car seats, and she said she was alarmed when she saw video of the magazine's tests. The video showed seats tumbling around and flying off their bases. In response, the agency decided to perform tests of its own.
"We went out and purchased 11 of the 12 seats, all that we were able to find, and tested them in the same manner that Consumer Reports said they tested them... and we found very different results," Nason said.
Nason is not sure what the magazine did wrong. But she noted that when vehicles are struck on their sides, the force pushes them sideways and that movement mitigates the impact of the crash. Nason said the tests may not have properly accounted for that movement, which could make the damage to the car seats look more severe.
One of the models that got the poorest ratings in the tests was made by Ohio-based Evenflo. The company defended the safety of its seats on Thursday and said it looked forward to reviewing the data with the magazine.
For Consumer Reports the retraction is a big loss of face. The magazine is used to ruffling feathers. And companies that get bad reviews have been known to attack its test methodology. This time the criticisms of the magazine appear to have some weight.